No, it’s not Christmas, but for me, it might as well be!
Lunar New Year—aka Chinese New Year—is celebrated by people in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and Tibet. Other cultures celebrate it on different days, but this is the main festival season for many East Asian communities. The holiday, which begins February 19 this year, is all about food, gifts, family and welcoming a bright new year full of health, wealth and good fortune.
It’s my favorite holiday of the year because a) it falls around those horrible winter months after Christmas when everyone really needs a bright, sparkling holiday; b) the food!; c) the wonderful infusion of red pocket monies; d) the food!; e) did I mention the food?
My family’s traditions start with New Year’s Eve dinner—a home-cooked feast that includes every animal that walks, flies and swims the earth. My mother’s preserved plum roast duck and scallion and ginger sauce chicken are the main event, as well as mushrooms and fat choy,a weird black hair-like fungus that’s stewed into a dish. It’s tastier than it sounds. And looks. And smells. But anyhow, everyone has to eat some, as a symbol of good luck for the year. I eat more than my fair share.
In between, New Year’s snacks are offered over the two-week celebration period. Nuts and seeds, candies, chocolate, fruit, pastries and fried snacks are often presented in large round trays at homes and in some businesses. |Sadly, I couldn’t tell you what half these things were. But they are DELICIOUS.
Red pockets are awesome. Most unmarried younger people (and especially children) are given small envelopes (though they’re not always red) stuffed with cash during the new year. Now that I’m married, I have to give red pockets out to my younger, unmarried relatives and close friends (though I usually only give chocolate coins because I’m not that rich). Important note: if you’re ever handed a red pocket and don’t know what it is, DO NOT OPEN IT IN FRONT OF THE GIVER. It is considered extremely rude, the equivalent of looking a gift horse in the mouth.
It’s bad luck to work on the day of Chinese New Year, so I usually take a vacation day and spend time with my family. Frequently, we go for dim sum, wearing some new clothes that are preferably red, and then spend our red pocket money on buying things that make you happy. Caveat to that: you’re not supposed to buy new shoes on new year’s because the phonetic sound for the word “shoes” sounds the same as the word for “trouble.” And no one wants to invite trouble on New Year’s Day.
If I’m lucky, I’ll get to see a lion dance in Chinatown. Businesses pay a kung fu club, which specially trains their members, to perform this traditional ceremony to scare away bad luck and bless their business. The dance mirrors an old legend of a monster that once terrorized a village annually, but was finally scared off by a brave man who painted the town in red and gold, then used firecrackers and banged on pots and pans and made a huge ruckus to scare the beast away. This, supposedly, is the origin of those traditions, although today, firecrackers are rarely used—it usually requires a permit in most cities.
Just like Christmas, though, Chinese New Year is all about celebrating with family and wishing each other a prosperous year. This year is the year of the sheep (or goat or ram)—my year! I’m hoping this means my year will be good, but my horoscope says that because this is my year, I have to be careful.
Maybe I shouldn’t worry about it too much and just eat some more good food.
Kung hei fat choy!